New breakthrough could revolutionize hydrogen production

Apr 09, 2013 Researchers at Virginia Tech have discovered a new way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from plants, a breakthrough that could revolutionize hydrogen production and make the fuel cost-competitive sooner than anticipated. A team led by Y.H. Percival Zhang has succeeded in using a specially designed enzyme to liberate large amounts of pure hydrogen from xylose, a simple sugar found in every plant. The reaction occurs at low temperatures and normal atmospheric pressure, produces no greenhouse gases, and achieves an energy efficiency of over 100%. Because of its efficiency and the abundant availability of plant biomass, the new process has the potential to transform the way hydrogen is produced, reducing a barrier that has long hindered adoption of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Currently, industrial hydrogen—a $100 billion industry—is produced mainly through steam reformation of natural gas, a costly and inefficient procedure that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. As Jeff McMahon points out at Forbes, the wastefulness of natural gas reformation was the main reason former Energy Secretary Steven Chu pushed FCEVs to the back burner in favor of battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs). The clean power and efficiency of fuel cells isn’t worth much if the hydrogen they use comes at a high energy and emissions cost. Zhang’s method could change that. If the technology makes it to the marketplace (which Jonathan Mielenz of Oak Ridge National Laboratory says could happen within three years), cheap, clean, renewable hydrogen would become a reality. That would eliminate one of the two biggest barriers to FCEV adoption identified in a recent National Resources Committee report (the other being the construction of hydrogen infrastructure). The research team worked for seven years to engineer the special enzyme. If it ends up making hydrogen renewable and affordable, the payoff—making FCEVs a viable competitor to gasoline engines and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels—would be enormous. The discovery was published in the international edition of the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. Percival Zhang

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